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John Calvin’s Integrated Covenant Theology (3):
The Blessings of the Covenant

Rev. Angus Stewart

(modified from an article first published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal)

 

Covenant Blessings

As in the previous two articles on Calvin’s covenant theology, our point of entry is that section of his Institutes in which he most fully treats the covenant (book 2, chapters 10 and 11). For Calvin, the nature of God’s covenant, summed in the "very formula of the covenant," determines the blessings of the covenant: "For the Lord always covenanted with his servants thus: ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’ [Lev. 26:12]. The prophets also commonly explained that life and salvation and the whole of blessedness are embraced in these words" (2.10.8, pp. 434-435).1 The context, the reference to the "prophets" and the passages Calvin quotes (Deut. 32:29; Ps. 33:12; 144:15; Hab. 1:12) indicate that these covenant blessings ("life and salvation and the whole of blessedness") are given to Old Testament, and not only New Testament, saints!

In the next paragraph, Calvin proceeds from the nature of the covenant ("the Lord is our God" and "I am … your God" [Ex. 6:7]) to list some of its blessings. Included amongst "an abundance of good things" and "spiritual life" are God’s "face" shining upon us, God’s "presence" such that He "dwells among us" and "union" with God through "righteousness;" as well as "salvation," "the treasures of his salvation," "everlasting salvation" and "assurance of salvation" (2.10.8, p. 435).

Similarly, in his commentary on Ezekiel 14:11 and after quoting the covenant formula, Calvin observes,

… it is well to remember what we said elsewhere, that under these words is contained whatever belongs to solid happiness. For if God acknowledges us as his people, we are certain of our salvation … we have nothing else to wish for towards the fullness of all good things and confidence in eternal life, than that God should reckon us among his people (Comm. on Eze. 14:11).

Calvin argues that Jehovah "did not declare that he would be a God to their bodies alone, but especially to their souls" (2.10.8, p. 435). Nor is He merely our God in time but not in the world to come.

[He] promised that he would ever be their God. This he did that their hope, not content with present benefits, might be extended to eternity. Many passages show that this characterization of the future life was so understood among [the Old Testament saints]" (2.10.9, p. 435).

Calvin goes on to treat these passages at length (2.10.9-23, pp. 435-449).

For Calvin, the covenant promise to be our God, applies not only to us in body and soul and in this world and the next, but it also applies to our (elect) children. Jehovah declares, "‘I shall be the God of your seed after you’ [Gen. 17:7 p.]," for He shows His covenant "beneficence" and "mercy" "‘to a thousand generations’ [Ex. 20:6]," according to the promise of the second commandment (2.10.9, pp. 435, 436).2 Calvin calls Genesis 17:7 "the solemn covenant of the church," and declares, "this blessing [is] promised in the covenant, that God’s grace shall everlastingly abide in the families of the pious" (2.8.21, p. 387).

Even in the Old Testament, God’s covenant promise for body and soul, for time and eternity and for us and our children, was through Jesus Christ, the mediator.3 Calvin repeatedly affirms that, not only after the incarnation of the Son of God but also before it, God’s covenant with His people is only through Christ (e.g., 2.6, pp. 340-348; 2.9, pp. 423-428; Comms. on Ps. 89:30-33; Isa. 42:6; 49:8; 55:4). Thus the Genevan Reformer begins the final section of book 2, chapter 10: "There are two remaining points: that the Old Testament fathers (1) had Christ pledge of their covenant, and (2) put in him all trust of future blessedness" (2.10.23, p. 448).

Since God’s covenant is always in Christ, it must be a spiritual covenant. This is "a principle unassailable by any stratagems of the devil" which Calvin has "boldly established:" "the Old Testament or Covenant that the Lord had made with the Israelites had not been limited to earthly things, but contained a promise of spiritual and eternal life" (2.10.23, p. 448).

Calvin insightfully notes that Old Testament believers not only looked to Christ but also, thereby, looked to and communicated in the future age: "We must also note this about the holy patriarchs: they so lived under the Old Covenant as not to remain there but ever to aspire to the New, and thus embraced a real share in it" (2.11.10, p. 460).

The Genevan Reformer summarises, with approval, part of Augustine’s Against Two Letters of the Pelagians on the Old Testament saints:

... the children of the promise [Rom. 9:8], reborn of God, who have obeyed the commands by faith working through love [Gal. 5:6], have belonged to the New Covenant since the world began. This they did, not in hope of carnal, earthly, and temporal things, but in hope of spiritual, heavenly, and eternal benefits. For they believed especially in the Mediator; and they did not doubt that through him the Spirit was given to them that they might do good, and that they were pardoned whenever they sinned (2.11.10, p. 459).

This is the conclusion Calvin draws: "It is that very point which I intended to affirm: all the saints whom Scripture mentions as being peculiarly chosen of God from the beginning of the world have shared with us the same blessing unto eternal salvation" (2.11.10, p. 459).

Even justification by faith alone (by grace alone through Christ alone) is a blessing belonging to "the covenant of the gospel" in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament:

… the Old Testament was established upon the free mercy of God, and was confirmed by Christ’s intercession. For the gospel preaching, too, declares nothing else than that sinners are justified apart from their own merit by God’s fatherly kindness; and the whole of it is summed up in Christ. Who, then, dares to separate the Jews from Christ, since with them, we hear, was made the covenant of the gospel, the sole foundation of which is Christ? Who dares to estrange from the gift of free salvation those to whom we hear the doctrine of the righteousness of faith was imparted? Not to dispute too long about something obvious—we have a notable saying of the Lord: "Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad" [John 8:56]. And what Christ there testified concerning Abraham, the apostle shows to have been universal among the believing folk when he says: "Christ remains, yesterday and today and forever" [Heb. 13:8] (2.10.4, p. 431).

Peter Lillback lists many of the covenant blessings referred to in the writings of Calvin:

The saving benefits found in the covenant include: Christ as redeemer, salvation, eternal life, adoption, redemption, gospel, union with God, eternal salvation, life, blessedness, inheritance, privilege, access to God, reconciliation, pardon, forgiveness of sins, adoption into salvation, regeneration or sanctification, resurrection, and the believer’s future and eternal happiness, all of which is due to God’s covenantal mercy and grace.4

As Calvin eloquently puts it, "Since therefore this covenant contains solid and perfect blessedness, it follows that all who are excluded from it are miserable" (Comm. on Isa. 54:10).

 

The Two Main Covenant Blessings

The "Two Main Parts" of the Covenant

Calvin often systematizes the blessings of salvation (soteriology) under a covenant scheme, that of the Bible itself in the celebrated prophecy of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34. However, as one would expect, given that Institutes 2.10-11 deal with the similarities and differences between the Old and New Testaments, the passage from Jeremiah 31 (2.11.7-8, pp. 456-457) and other Scriptures which allude to it—II Corinthians 3 (2.11.7-8, pp. 456-457), Hebrews 8-10 (2.11.4, pp. 453-454) and "the cup of the New Testament in my blood [Luke 22:20 p.]" (2.11.4, p. 454)—are here treated not soteriologically (in terms of the blessings of the covenant) but hermeneutically (in interpreting the comparisons and contrasts between the old and new covenants).

In his commentary on Hebrews 8:8-12, itself quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34, Calvin declares, "There are two main parts in this covenant; the first regards the gratuitous remission of sins; and the other, the inward renovation of the heart" (Comm. on Heb. 8:10). The "two main parts" do not refer to those embraced in the everlasting covenant (the Triune God and His elect people in Christ), nor to Jehovah’s work of saving us on the one hand and our calling to live new and holy lives on the other. The "two main parts in this covenant" are the two central covenant blessings of (legal) justification ("I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more") and (organic) regeneration or sanctification ("I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts"), as Calvin states above and goes on to explain (Comm. on Heb. 8:10).

 Given that Calvin speaks of "two main parts" of the covenant and since the Triune God establishes His covenant by redeeming us through the cross of Christ, it is no surprise that the French Reformer also refers to the two "parts" of redemption or, to speak more precisely, the two (main) parts of the application of redemption. Thus Calvin lists "both parts of redemption—the remission of sins, by which God imputes righteousness to us [i.e., justification],—and the sanctification of the Spirit, by whom he forms us anew unto good works" (Comm. on Rom. 6:14).

Commenting on the covenant formula in Ezekiel 11:19-20, Calvin refers again to "these two things" (i.e., the covenant blessings of justification and sanctification), this time with a more practical application: the two are inseparable and so those who claim to be forgiven, yet live wickedly, seek to "rend" and "sever" God’s covenant and "abolish half" of it:

Hence, whenever our salvation is treated of, let these two things be remembered, that we cannot be reckoned God’s sons unless he freely expiate our sins, and thus reconcile himself to us [i.e., justification]: and then not unless he also rule us by his Spirit [i.e., sanctification]. Now we must hold, that what God hath joined man ought not to separate. Those, therefore, who through relying on the indulgence of God permit themselves to give way to sin, rend his covenant and impiously sever it. Why so? because God has joined these two things together, viz., that he will be propitious to his sons [i.e., justification], and will also renew their hearts [i.e., sanctification]. Hence those who lay hold of only one member of the sentence, namely, the pardon [i.e., justification], because God bears with them, and omit the other [i.e., sanctification], are as false and sacrilegious as if they abolished half of God’s covenant (Comm. on Eze. 11:19-20).

In his exposition of the fifth and sixth petitions of the Lord’s Prayer ("forgive us our debts … and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil"), Calvin refers to these "two members" of the covenant (justification and sanctification), again with reference to Jeremiah 31.

Christ briefly embraces all that makes for the heavenly life, as the spiritual covenant that God has made for the salvation of his church rests on these two members alone: "I shall write my laws upon their hearts," and, "I shall be merciful towards their iniquity" [Jer. 31:33 p.; cf. ch. 33:8]. Here [i.e., in the fifth and sixth petitions of the Lord’s Prayer] Christ begins with forgiveness of sins [i.e., justification], then presently adds the second grace: that God protect us by the power of his Spirit and sustain us by his aid so we may stand unvanquished against all temptations [i.e., sanctification] (3.20.45, p. 910).

As in his commentary on Ezekiel 11:19-20, Calvin goes on to stress the inseparability of these two covenant blessings. But whereas there Calvin was opposing antinomians, here he is attacking perfectionist "rascals" "who imagine such perfection for themselves as would make it unnecessary to seek pardon." Calvin denounces these "new doctors" who have no need to pray "forgive us our debts" because of their spurious claim to "perfect innocence."

… these rascals, by cancelling one section of it [i.e., "I shall be merciful towards their iniquity"], tear apart God’s covenant, in which we see our salvation contained, and topple it from its foundation … they are guilty of sacrilege in separating things till now joined (3.20.45, p. 911).

In his treatment of vows, Calvin returns to the two great blessings of the covenant: "in the covenant of grace … are contained both forgiveness of sins and the spirit of sanctification" (4.13.6, p. 1260).5

The Two-Fold Grace of Christ

Since Christ is the Christ of the covenant, it comes as no surprise to observe Calvin referring to what he has called the "two main parts," the "two things" and the "two members" of the covenant as the "two-fold grace" of Christ.

[By] the two-fold grace of Christ … believers, being regenerated by the Spirit, should aspire to the obedience of righteousness [i.e., sanctification], and [are] reconciled freely to God through the forgiveness of their sins [i.e., justification] (Comm. on Deut. 30:19).

In the next sentence, Calvin asserts, "the same covenant is common to us and to the ancient people." Thus both Old Testament and New Testament saints receive the same covenant blessings, being justified and sanctified by "the two-fold grace of Christ," contrary to "the Papists" who "extol free-will" and "boast of merits" (Comm. on Deut. 30:19).

In a sermon on Galatians 2:17-18, Calvin, with a slight variation in terminology, refers to "the two principal graces of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The one is the forgiveness of our sins, whereby we are assured of our salvation, and have our consciences quieted [i.e., justification] … The second is, that whereas we be forward of our own nature … when we have once tasted the inestimable love of our God, and perceived what our Lord Jesus Christ is: then we be so touched by his [H]oly [S]pirit, that we condemn the evil, and desire to draw near unto God, and to frame ourselves to his holy will [i.e., sanctification].6

In this same sermon, Calvin also enumerates the "two graces" of justification and sanctification as, respectively, the "first benefit" and the "second benefit which our Lord Jesus Christ bringeth us."7

Preaching on that celebrated gospel text, Genesis 15:6, the Genevan Reformer extols our Redeemer's riches towards us in that we receive not merely a single or "simple grace and favor" but a "double" grace and favour:

... our Savior Jesus Christ beareth us not only a simple grace and favor, but a double, that is to say: that on the one side he covereth all our iniquities and offenses through his pure obedience [i.e., justification], and appeaseth the wrath of God his father by that Sacrifice which he offered up once for all, to make satisfaction for our sins: and yet he so ruleth and governeth us in the meanwhile by his holy spirit whom he hath received in all fullness and resteth upon him, that if so be we do not abuse his grace bestowed upon us, we are freed from the bands of Satan, that we might take good heed as (Saint Peter saith) not to follow the lusts and desires of the flesh [i.e., sanctification].8

Just as the Lord Jesus grants us "not only a simple grace and favor, but a double," so Calvin teaches that we receive two gifts or a double gift: "it is not one or a single gift; for being clothed with the righteousness of the Son, we are reconciled to God [i.e., justification], and we are by the power of the Spirit renewed unto holiness [i.e., sanctification]" (Comm. on Rom. 6:23).

In the Institutes, the "two-fold grace" or favour or gift of Christ is also described as the "double grace" we receive in union with Him:

By partaking of [Christ], we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father [i.e., justification]; and secondly, that being sanctified by Christ’s Spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life [i.e., sanctification] (3.11.1, p. 725).

This comes right at the start of the eight-chapter treatment of justification in Calvin’s Institutes (3.11-18). Even as he begins this subject, he has his eye on a major Roman Catholic attack on the truth of justification by faith alone: "You Reformed people proclaim the free forgiveness of sins in order that you may live loosely!" Calvin gets his defence in early: those whom God justifies in Christ, He also sanctifies.

Calvin also uses this powerful argument at the start of Institutes 3.16, a chapter devoted to the refutation of false accusations of the Romanists against justification by faith alone.

Why, then, are we justified by faith? Because by faith we grasp Christ’s righteousness, by which alone we are reconciled to God. Yet you could not grasp this without at the same time grasping sanctification also. For he "is given unto us for righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and redemption" [I Cor. 1:30]. Therefore Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify. These benefits are joined together by an everlasting and indissoluble bond, so that those whom he illumines by his wisdom, he redeems; those whom he redeems, he justifies; those whom he justifies, he sanctifies (3.16.1, p. 798).

Similarly, Calvin states that the "benefits" of justification and sanctification are "two things knit together by an unseparable [i.e., inseparable] band," a point he goes on to illustrate by the inseparable light and heat of the sun.9

Justification and sanctification must be distinguished but they must not be separated, declares Calvin:

Although we may distinguish [justification and sanctification], Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ [i.e., justification]? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [I Cor. 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other (3.16.1, p. 798).

As Alister McGrath puts it,

For Calvin, justification and sanctification are both direct consequences of the believer's incorporation into Christ. If the believer has been united with Christ through faith, he or she is at one and the same time made acceptable in the sight of God (justification), and launched on the path to moral improvement (sanctification).10

Calvin sums up by explaining that we are justified by faith alone but not a faith that is alone, that we are justified by faith without works but not a faith that is without works: "Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as [imputed] righteousness [i.e., justification]" (3.16.1, p. 798).

Since Christ is the covenant Christ and the "two main parts" of the covenant (justification and sanctification) are treasured in Him, to separate imputed and infused righteousness is not only to "sacrilegiously" "tear apart God’s covenant" (3.20.45, p. 910); it is also to "divide" (3.16.1, p. 798), "tear" (3.11.6, p. 732; Comm. on I Cor. 1:30) and "shamefully rend Christ asunder" (Comm. on Rom. 6:1) by a "mutilated faith" (Comm. on Rom. 8:13). In Institutes 3.11.6, Calvin refers to Christ being "torn into parts;" in his commentary on I Corinthians 1:30, He is torn "in pieces." Calvin, of course, is not speaking literally, a point he makes abundantly clear: "he who attempts to sever [justification and sanctification] does in a manner tear Christ in pieces" (Comm. on I Cor. 1:30), for "Christ cannot be torn into parts" (3.11.6, p. 732).

Through all this we see how the great Reformer skilfully uses the truth of God’s covenant and its two main blessings in Jesus Christ not only to defend the gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, but also to call God’s people to a new and holy life.

The Office of the Holy Spirit

For Calvin, the theologian of the Holy Spirit, as B. B. Warfield famously dubbed him, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the covenant, for in the new covenant "the regeneration of the Spirit … is promised" (Comm. on Jer. 31:34).11 In fact, this is what makes the new covenant, "in some respects, a new thing, that God regenerates the faithful by his Spirit" (Comm. on Jer. 31:31-32).

Calvin also teaches that we receive Christ and all His blessings through the Holy Spirit and by faith.12 In his commentary on I Corinthians 6:11, while noting that the "three terms [washed, sanctified and justified] have the same general meaning," Calvin adds, "there is, nevertheless, great force in their very variety." Calvin explains,

… there is an implied contrast between … sanctification and pollution—justification and guilt. His meaning is, that having been once justified, they must not draw down upon themselves a new condemnation—that, having been sanctified, they must not pollute themselves anew (Comm. on I Cor. 6:11).

Calvin’s comments continue:

With propriety and elegance he distinguishes between different offices [i.e., the roles of Christ and the Holy Spirit]. For the blood of Christ is the procuring cause of our cleansing: righteousness [i.e., justification] and sanctification come to us through his death and resurrection. But, as the cleansing effected by Christ, and the attainment of righteousness, are of no avail except to those who have been made partakers of those blessings by the influence of the Holy Spirit, it is with propriety that he makes mention of the Spirit in connection with Christ. Christ, then, is the source of all blessings to us: from him we obtain all things; but Christ himself, with all his blessings [i.e., especially in this context, justification and sanctification], is communicated to us by the Spirit. For it is by faith that we receive Christ, and have his graces applied to us. The Author of faith is the Spirit (Comm. on I Cor. 6:11).

Defending the faith against the Roman Catholic Cardinal Sadoleto, Calvin insists on the inseparability of justification and sanctification because of the inseparability of Christ and the Spirit:

For if he who has obtained justification possesses Christ and, at the same time, Christ never is where His Spirit is not, it is obvious that gratuitous righteousness is necessarily connected with regeneration. Therefore, if you would duly understand how inseparable faith and works are, look to Christ, who, as the Apostle teaches (I Cor. 1:30), has been given to us for justification and sanctification. Wherever, therefore, that righteousness of faith, which we maintain to be gratuitous, is, there too Christ is, and where Christ is, there too is the Spirit of holiness, who regenerates the soul to newness of life. On the contrary, where zeal for integrity and holiness is not in vigor, there neither is the Spirit of Christ nor Christ Himself; and wherever Christ is not, there is no righteousness, nay, there is no faith; for faith cannot apprehend Christ for righteousness without the Spirit of sanctification.13

In his commentary on Hebrews 10:29, Calvin relates God's covenant, Christ, the Holy Spirit and God's blessings. "The blood of the covenant" or "the blood of Christ" "would avail us nothing, except we were sprinkled with it by the Holy Spirit; and hence come our expiation [i.e., justification] and sanctification."

Calvin goes on to mention other "benefits," besides these two main covenant blessings, that we receive through "the Spirit of grace," such as illumination, assurance of sonship, new life and union with Christ and His church:

... it is by the Spirit and through his influence that we receive the grace offered to us in Christ. For he it is who enlightens our minds by faith, who seals the adoption of God on our hearts, who regenerates us unto newness of life, who grafts us into the body of Christ, that he may live in us and we in him. He is therefore rightly called the Spirit of grace, by whom Christ becomes ours with all his blessings (Comm. on Heb. 10:29).

The Two Topics of the Gospel

Not only do both the covenant and Christ contain the double blessings of justification and sanctification; Calvin also embraces these benefits under the gospel. After all, Christ is the Christ of the gospel, and the covenant is "the covenant of the gospel" (2.10.4, p. 431). "With good reason," states Calvin, "the sum of the gospel is held to consist in repentance and forgiveness of sins" (3.3.1, p. 592).14 Both "these two topics," he adds significantly, "are conferred on us by Christ, and both are attained by us through faith." What Calvin identifies as the "two topics" of the gospel (3.3.1, p. 592), he later refers to as "two headings."

Now if it is true—a fact abundantly clear—that the whole of the gospel is contained under these two headings, repentance and forgiveness of sins, do we not see that the Lord freely justifies his own in order that he may at the same time restore them to true righteousness by sanctification of the Spirit (3.3.19, p. 613)?

The Two Graces Signified in Baptism

With Christ and His gospel both containing the "two main parts" of the covenant, it is natural for Calvin to describe the sacrament of baptism (the New Testament equivalent of circumcision) as a sign and seal of both justification and sanctification:

We have, therefore, a spiritual promise given to the patriarchs in circumcision such as is given us in baptism, since it represented for them forgiveness of sins [i.e., justification], and mortification of the flesh [i.e., sanctification]. Moreover, as we have taught that Christ is the foundation of baptism, in whom both of these reside, so it is also evident that he is the foundation of circumcision (4.16.3, p. 1327).

Dropping the parallel between circumcision and baptism, Calvin writes, "Thus, the pardon of sins and the imputation of righteousness [i.e., justification] are first promised us [in baptism], and then the grace of the Holy Spirit to reform us to newness of life [i.e., sanctification]" (4.15.5, p. 1307).

Not only does baptism (or circumcision) represent justification and sanctification; Calvin also teaches that it signifies justification and issues a call to sanctification, as in this quotation that refers to Father Abraham:

… the first access to God, the first entry into eternal life, is the forgiveness of sins. Accordingly this corresponds to the promise of baptism that we shall be cleansed [i.e., justification]. Afterward, the Lord covenants with Abraham that he should walk before him in uprightness and innocence of heart [Gen. 17:1]. This applies to mortification, or regeneration [i.e., the call to sanctification] (4.16.3, p. 1326).15

"Cleansing" and "mortification" (or justification and sanctification) are the "two graces" signified in baptism (4.15.9, p. 1310); as they are the "two main parts," the "two things" and the "two members" of the covenant; the "two-fold grace," the "two principal graces" and the "double grace" in Christ Himself; and the "two topics" and the "two headings" of the gospel.16

The Lord’s Supper, a Seal of Covenant Blessings

For Calvin, the Lord’s Supper is a "covenant-seal" (Comm. on I Cor. 11:23) by which believers "are made partakers of all the blessings which Christ has procured for us in his body" through "the secret and wonderful work of the Holy Spirit" (Comm. on I Cor. 11:24). Like baptism, the other Christian sacrament, the Supper is "an aid to our faith related to the preaching of the gospel" (4.14.1, p. 1276), joined to the Word "as a sort of appendix, with the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise [of salvation]" (4.14.3, p. 1278).

Christ’s words of institution at the Last Supper specifically relate the covenant and its first "main part:" "For this is my blood of the new testament [i.e., covenant], which is shed for many for the remission of sins [i.e., justification]" (Matt. 26:28). Thus Calvin notes that in this sacrament of God’s "everlasting covenant" "believing souls [are] satisfied … by being assured that God is pacified towards them" for their "own sins have been expiated"—justification (Comm. on Mark 14:24; cf. 2.17.4, p. 531).

However, in his various writings Calvin much more frequently speaks in terms of the second principal covenant blessing, in keeping with the dominant scriptural presentation of spiritual eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood at the Lord’s Supper. The sacrament is presented, for example, as a means of sanctification in this quotation from the Institutes:

… when bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of the body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realise that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden (4.17.3, p. 1363).

Calvin refers to the blessings of both justification and sanctification through believing partaking of the Lord’s Supper, for it is "a mirror in which we may contemplate Jesus Christ crucified to take away our offences [i.e., justification] and raised again to deliver us from corruption [i.e., sanctification]."17

In his exposition of John 6 on Christ’s discourse on Himself as the bread of life, Calvin explains what the Lord means when He presents His flesh as "life-giving:"

This will not be difficult to understand, if we consider what is the cause of life, namely, righteousness. And though righteousness flows from God alone, still we shall not attain the full manifestation of it any where else than in the flesh of Christ; for in it was accomplished the redemption of man, in it a sacrifice was offered to atone for sins, and an obedience yielded to God [for our justification] … it was also filled with the sanctification of the Spirit [for our sanctification] (Comm. on John 6:51).18

The Genevan Reformer rightly notes that, though John 6 is not referring, first of all, to the Lord’s Supper, it may be applied to the sacrament of His broken body and shed blood.

It is certain, then, that he now speaks of the perpetual and ordinary manner of eating the flesh of Christ, which is done by faith only. And yet, at the same time, I acknowledge that there is nothing said here that is not figuratively represented, and actually bestowed on believers, in the Lord’s Supper; and Christ even intended that the holy Supper should be, as it were, a seal and confirmation of this sermon (Comm. on John 6:54).

 

The Third Covenant Blessing

In his commentary on Hebrews 8:8-12, after Calvin declares, "There are two main parts in this covenant; the first regards the gratuitous remission of sins [i.e., justification]; and the other, the inward renovation of the heart [i.e., sanctification]," he adds, "there is a third which depends on the second, and that is the illumination of the mind as to the knowledge of God" (Comm. on Heb. 8:10).

Likewise, in his commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34, the passage quoted in Hebrews 8:8-12, Calvin states,

Here, then, he speaks of the grace of regeneration [i.e., sanctification], of the gift of knowledge [i.e., illumination], and at the same time promises that God would be propitious to his people [i.e., justification] in a different and more perfect way than he had been in former times (Comm. on Jer. 31:34).

However, the three blessings are not numbered in Calvin’s commentary on Jeremiah 31:34; in fact, they can only be identified as such in the light of his commentary on Hebrews 8:10-11. Even there, Calvin notes that the third covenant blessing (illumination) "depends on the second" (sanctification) (Comm. on Heb. 8:10) and "is as it were a part of" it (Comm. on Heb. 8:11). The distinct yet inseparable "two main parts" of the covenant were much more useful to him in his battles with Romanists and antinomians than a threefold classification.19

 

An Integrated Covenant Theology

This series of articles is entitled "John Calvin’s Integrated Covenant Theology" with good reason. For Calvin, the covenant not only serves to demonstrate the unity of the Bible and the people of God in all ages; it also shows the unity of the blessings of salvation. Though he does not treat each of the elements of the ordo salutis in turn as a covenant blessing, as does Herman Witsius in Book III of his The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man or David McKay in chapter 7 of his The Bond of Love,20 Calvin repeatedly explains that all the blessings of salvation are summed in the covenant formula, "I will be your God and you will be my people," which evidently includes, for instance, reconciliation, union with the Triune God in Jesus Christ, access to God in prayer and eternal life.

Moreover, "the two main parts" of the covenant, justification and sanctification are legal and organic blessings. From these Calvin often goes on to discuss faith (the way of receiving justification), the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (the two parts of justification) and adoption and our eternal inheritance (closely related to justification); as well as regeneration (the beginning of sanctification), repentance or mortification and vivification (the two parts of sanctification), the struggle between the old and the new man and the Christian life.

We may add the "third point" of the covenant (Comm. on Heb. 8:11), illumination, which includes the knowledge of God (as creator and redeemer in Jesus Christ) and the knowledge of ourselves (as fallen in Adam and saved in Christ) (cf. 1.1.1, pp. 35-37).

Also, as we saw at the start of this article, Calvin presents God’s covenant blessings as for body and soul, for time and eternity and for us and our children (2.10.8-9, pp. 434-436). This is indeed an integrated theology of covenant blessings!

Calvin even includes  a covenant blessing few would think of. He observes that God's promise, "I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee" (Gen. 12:3), is embraced in His "covenant with Abram." Calvin infers "this general doctrine, that God so embraces us with his favour, that he will bless our friends, and take vengeance on our enemies." "This," Calvin rightly believes, "is an inestimable pledge of special love" for it manifests "the extraordinary kindness of God" (Comm. on Gen. 12:3).

 

Covenant Blessings All of Grace!

For Calvin, since the gospel of Christ and salvation are all of grace, the covenant, as the "covenant of the gospel" (2.10.4, p. 431) and the "covenant of salvation" (Comms. on Gen. 12:3; Heb. 8:10), must be, and is, also all of grace. Calvin even uses the term "covenant of grace" (e.g., 4.13.6, p. 1260; Comm. on Isa. 42:6) and "covenant of free grace" (Comm. on Isa. 55:3).21 For him, God’s grace and God’s covenant are inseparably joined.

Here are Calvin’s comments on "the mercies of David" in Isaiah 55:3: "by this phrase he declares that it was a covenant of free grace; for it was founded on nothing else than the absolute goodness of God." Clearly, the origin and source of Jehovah’s covenant is His eternal loving-kindness (Comm. on Gen. 12:1). 

Moreover, God’s mercies come to us through His covenant with us.22 The covenant is "the source or spring of salvation" with all its blessings, including adoption:

By the way of God is meant his covenant, which is the source or spring of salvation, and by which he discovered himself in the character of a Father to his ancient people, and afterwards more clearly under the Gospel, when the Spirit of adoption was shed abroad in greater abundance (Comm. on Ps. 67:2). 

On the Lord's keeping "covenant and mercy" with those who love him, Calvin states that we may "resolve the phrase" as "the covenant founded on mercy—or the mercy which He covenanted" (Comm. on Deut. 7:9). Thus Calvin teaches that God's free grace is both the source and the fruit of the covenant. No wonder, that the Genevan Reformer lays down this a general principle: "Whenever, therefore, the word ‘covenant’ occurs in Scripture, we ought at the same time to call to remembrance the word ‘grace’" (Comm. on Isa. 55:3). 

In this article, it must be stressed that the blessings of the covenant and especially the two main covenant blessings declare that the covenant is gracious. Thus in his comments on Jeremiah 31:31-34, Calvin attacks the "foolish" and "arrogant" Romish "conceit" of free will that claims to "co-operate" with God, and so he exalts "grace" alone that God may receive all the "glory" in His covenant.

We may further learn from this passage, how foolish the Papists are in their conceit about free-will. They indeed allow that without the help of God’s grace we are not capable of fulfilling the Law, and thus they concede something to the aid of grace and of the Spirit: but still they not only imagine a co-operation as to free-will, but ascribe to it the main work. Now the Prophet here testifies that it is the peculiar work of God to write his Law in our hearts. Since God then declares that this favour is justly his, and claims to himself the glory of it, how great must be the arrogance of men to appropriate this to themselves? To write the Law in the heart imports nothing less than so to form it, that the Law should rule there, and that there should be no feeling of the heart, not conformable and not consenting to its doctrine. It is hence then sufficiently clear, that no one can be turned so as to obey the Law, until he be regenerated by the Spirit of God; nay, that there is no inclination in man to act rightly, except God prepares his heart by his grace (Comm. on Jer. 31:33).

In his exposition of Hebrews 8:10-11, Calvin exalts divine grace alone in his treatment of each of the "two main parts" of the covenant (Comm. on Heb. 8:10) and the "third point" (Comm. on Heb. 8:11). First, God alone must sanctify us by His Spirit because "perverse passions rule within, which lead us to rebellion," for "our will is carried away by a sort of insane impulse to resist God." Second, God alone must justify us for "we are all of us guilty," and even as believers our old nature is still "vicious" and "many corrupt affections of the flesh still remain," so that, of ourselves, "we are still guilty [i.e., worthy] of eternal death before God." By the marvel of God’s grace, "pardon is promised to [us], not for one day only, but to the very end of life" (Comm. on Heb. 8:10). Third, God alone must illumine us since "our minds are blind and destitute of all right understanding until they are illuminated by the Spirit of God." "Thus," Calvin concludes, "God is rightly known by those alone to whom he has been pleased by a special favour to reveal himself" (Comm. on Heb. 8:11).

Calvin’s comments on these same key passages in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 on the two main covenant blessings also extol the far richer, catholic blessings of the new covenant, of which we are beneficiaries.

Jeremiah … shews … how much more abundant and richer the favour of God would be towards his people [i.e., in the New Testament] than formerly [i.e., in the Old Testament]. He then does not simply promise the restoration of that dignity and greatness which they had lost, but something better and more excellent (Comm. on Jer. 31:31-32).

As then the Father has put forth more fully the power of his Spirit under the kingdom of Christ, and has poured forth more abundantly his mercy on mankind, this exuberance renders insignificant the small portion of grace which he had been pleased to bestow on the fathers. We also see that the promises were then obscure and intricate, so that they shone only like the moon and stars in comparison with the clear light of the Gospel which shines brightly on us (Comm. on Heb. 8:10).


1 As in parts 1 and 2, all citations of the Institutes are from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960) and all citations of Calvin’s commentaries are from the 22-volume Baker (repr. 1993) edition.
2 The Anabaptists attacked God’s truth by teaching a carnal covenant in the Old Testament and a childless covenant in the New Testament. The latter is true of all Baptists and the former of, at least, many Baptists in our own day.
3 Christ is "the sole Mediator of all God's covenanted blessings," to quote Philip Edgcumbe Hughes's nice turn of phrase (Interpreting Prophecy [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], p. 10).
4 Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), pp. 178-179. In his extensive footnotes, Lillback cites as proof various places in Calvin’s literary corpus, especially his Institutes.
5 Other places where Calvin mentions the two main covenant blessings of Jeremiah 31:31-34 include his commentaries on Leviticus 26:9, Ezekiel 16:61-62 and Daniel 9:27.
6 John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians (Audubon, NJ: Old Paths, 1995), pp. 277-278.
7 Calvin, Galatians, pp. 279, 278.
8 John Calvin, Sermons on Melchizedek and Abraham (Audubon, NJ: Old Paths, 2000), pp. 187-188.
9 Calvin, Galatians, pp. 278-279.
10 Alister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 166.
11 Similarly, the "new covenant" promises "that God would endow them with the Spirit of regeneration" (Comm. on Deut. 30:6).
12 As Calvin puts it, "to say all in one word, [the Holy Spirit] makes Christ with all his benefits to become ours" (Comm. on I John 5:8).
13 John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply, ed. John C. Olin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), p. 68.
14 A few lines later, Calvin uses "newness of life" as synonymous with "repentance" (3.3.1, p. 592). Calvin often treats repentance as the equivalent of mortification, which in turn implies quickening or vivification, which two constitute the negative and positive parts of sanctification (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 88-90). Thus he states that repentance "consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit" (3.3.5, p. 597). As Ronald S. Wallace puts it, "Calvin, when he wishes to vary his language, can use many other terms such as repentance, mortification, new life, conversion, regeneration, to denote exactly the same as he means by the word sanctification" (Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life [Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959], p. 25).
15 This is similar to our Form for the Administration of Baptism which in its second principle part declares (in brief) that the Triune God makes an eternal covenant of grace with us, justifies us and sanctifies us and, therefore, in the third principle part calls us to a life of sanctification (The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches [USA: PRCA, 2005], p. 258).
16 For Calvin, the benefits received by elect believers through the sacraments are not only covenant blessings in Christ; they are also inwardly wrought by the Holy Ghost: "all [the] efficacy and utility [of the sacraments] is lodged in the Spirit alone," for grace "depends on the secret operation of his Spirit" (Comm. on Deut. 30:6).
17 Quoted in Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), p. 201.
18 In the prayer before partaking of the sacrament, in our Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, we beseech God, that He will be pleased in this Supper to work in us that more and more we may "be made partakers of the new and everlasting covenant of grace" so that "we may not doubt but [He will] forever be our gracious Father, nevermore imputing our sins unto us [i.e., justification], and … grant us also [His] grace, that we may take up our cross cheerfully, deny ourselves, confess our Saviour [i.e., sanctification]" (The Confessions and Church Order, p. 272).
19 This is not to deny that in various places Calvin speaks of illumination as a covenant blessing taught in Jeremiah 31:31-34, as well as justification and sanctification: justification (e.g., 3.4.29, p. 656; Comms. on Ps. 89:30-33; Rom. 11:27), sanctification (e.g., 1.9.3, p. 95; 2.5.4, p. 321; 2.5.9, p. 326; 2.7.12, p. 360; Comms. on Deut. 30:6, 11; Eze. 18:14-17, 31; Matt. 5:17; Rom. 2:29; II Cor. 3:3, 6) and illumination (e.g., Comms. on Isa. 11:10; 54:13; Hos. 2:19-20; Matt. 13:16; 24:4; John 16:23).
20 Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity (Escondido, CA: The den Dulk Christian Foundation, repr. 1990), vol. 1, pp. 344-468 and vol. 2, pp. 1-107; David McKay, The Bond of Love: God’s Covenantal Relationship with His Church (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), pp. 137-165.
21 In The Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin speaks of the "covenant of grace" which was "ratified in Christ" as the covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David, and the confidence this gives us in prayer (Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995), p. 53.
22 As Calvin states, "It is the fruit of the covenant, that God chooses us for his people [referring here to the result in time of God's election of us  in eternity], and assures us that he will be the guardian of our salvation" (Comm. on Heb. 8:10).